TOM DUDDY, who was taken far too soon by cancer in June 2012, is one of those poets whose work is not as well-known as it should be; though those familiar with Duddy’s poetry hold it in the highest regard.
Tom lectured in philosophy at NUI Galway for many years and was the author of a substantial study of the Irish contribution to philosophy, A History of Irish Thought. For much of his life Tom read and wrote poetry almost in secret. He was a little nervous that his fellow philosophers might see poetry as a frivolous activity when set against the admittedly serious business of working out the meaning of human existence.
Plato, notoriously, had little time for poets. Tom perhaps suspected that the philosophy crowd might agree with old Plato and expel him from their Republic, or at least banish him to its outskirts, if he came out publicly as a poet.
About a decade ago, though, Tom began to bring his poetry out in public. He was one of the selected readers at 2007 Cúirt Over The Edge Showcase. In 2011 his first full collection of poems, The Hiding Place, was shortlisted for a number of significant prizes. Tom Duddy, the poet, was on the verge of something when diagnosed with cancer late that same year.
As a poet, he had two essential qualities; he was both a perfectionist and absolutely honest in his writing. And in The Years, a new published posthumous collection from HappenStance Press, much of it written while he was ill, no issue is evaded.
In the opening poem, ‘The Appointment’, in which Tom juxtaposes the birds outside the window who “chirr, churr, chortle, cawk, bicker/and gurgle in a slow-burning/ticking over and idling/of sun-triggered energies” against the stooping figure inside the window who “searches/back and forth, back and forth in a secret drawer, scarcely/making a sound, thinking/not to wake me till it’s time.”
However the narrator is already awake. Most of us make it safely to the grave without ever writing lines as mercilessly honest as these.
Tom’s poems are devoid of the curse that is sentimentality. At his best Duddy was Philip Larkin without the dismissive attitude to almost the entire human race. In ‘Nights Out’ the narrator speaks of the “heavenly and carnal peace I feel/as my thoughts withdraw from the bare,/emblazoned backs” of young women out for the night “and sweep down towards/her [his wife Sheila’s] dear pale hands at rest in her lap, one/cupped inside the other, palm resting open.”
I have long thought that older men who chase young skirts are attracted, less by the undeniable physical charms of these younger women, than by the fact that, when trying to impress a younger woman, they feel free to again talk rubbish, rubbish your wife would cut right through. Tom Duddy never had any such interest in talking rubbish and this perfect book is testament to that.
Members of Tom Duddy’s family will read some of the poems in The Years at the May Over The Edge Writers’ Gathering in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop on Saturday, May 17 at 6pm.